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Winery branching out to brandy in a restored barn

Marvin Owings (left) is the apple specialist and Alan Ward the visionary and owner of Appalachian Crest Artisan Cider, which will serve hard cider and Calvados brandy and French pommeau. Marvin Owings (left) is the apple specialist and Alan Ward the visionary and owner of Appalachian Crest Artisan Cider, which will serve hard cider and Calvados brandy and French pommeau.

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Marvin Owings (left) is the apple specialist and Alan Ward the visionary and owner of Appalachian Crest Artisan Cider, which will serve hard cider and Calvados brandy and French pommeau.

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Alan Ward and Marvin Owings make a formidable team — a portfolio manager who’s become an innovator in wine-making, hard cider and now distilling and a retired farm agent who's one of the area’s leading experts on the science of growing apples.

“I give Marvin a hard time but we kind of complement each other,” Ward says recently in the cavernous old barn he’s converted into his newest tasting room venture. “I couldn’t have done this without Marvin.”
After more than two years of planning and renovation, Ward expects to open his new Appalachian Ridge tasting room, maybe as early as Labor Day weekend. When he does open, visitors will be able to sample not only hard cider but brandy and French pommeau, a blend of Calvados brandy and hard cider.
The 70-year-old barn itself is an impressive adaptive reuse. Built in the late 1940s by apple farmer Walter Freeman, the structure has a towering ceiling and irregularly shaped floorboards made of different kinds of wood.
“When he was getting ready to buy this property and this barn you would not believe the stuff that was in this barn,” Owings says. Workers blasted the floor clean, caulked between the floorboards and added a series of finishes.
And now the barn has a long wooden table hand-crafted by Ward’s son, Brian, a pediatrician in Boone and woodworker on the side, other tables made of stable doors, a long apple-themed bar decorated with stained glass images and a two-level deck overlooking Ward’s Crest of the Blue Ridge orchard.
“We could’ve torn down this barn and done it for a fraction of the price,” he says. “But we didn’t. … It is beyond solid. And that deck we put on the back — we made that as a tough as a railroad trestle. We tried to do everything we could to keep it real. Everything you see inside is the way this barn was. We tried to keep everything authentic.”
Talk about authentic. Don’t get Ward started. Or do get him started. No one can stop him.
When Ward and Owings get started about Normandy and their search for apple varieties that are perfect for cider, pommeau and brandy, they’re a tag team of narrators unable to conceal their enthusiasm.
Back in 2004, Owings invited French apple farmers named the Huets to the Winter Apple School in Hendersonville. They got reacquainted over the last couple of years when Ward and Owings traveled to the Normandy region —a few hundred yards from Omaha Beach — to observe the French harvesting and pressing and buy native trees that go back hundreds of years.
With Owings handling the growing side, the partners will receive 5,200 one-year-old trees of 14 different varieties this winter to plant on the slope behind the big barn.

SUBHED
Wine to cider to brandy

Ward pours samples of the brandy and pommeau into 300-year-old brandy glasses he brought home from France.
“Who knows who drank out of that, maybe Marie Antoinette,” he quips.
After starting Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards in 2012, Ward expanded into hard cider and now is launching his distillery.
“We now have a distillation license and we are going to build a distillery in that hill over there,” he says. He’s working with Blue Ridge Distillation, which makes the highly regarded Defiant single-malt whisky in Rutherford County.
“There some of the most advanced people we’ve found that understand distillation,” Ward says. “These guys can really check it out scientifically where we’re getting what we want.”
Local, though, is a big part of what Ward preaches and practices. What he doesn’t grow himself, he buys from local apple farmers. Ward’s grower, Wayne Barnwell, blends seven different varieties of apples to make the base for hard cider.
No offense, Ward adds, but “what about craft beer is local except the water? The hops, the grain, they’re not local. This is truly a local product where we can take you out and show you where this comes from. The money that we pay out stays in North Carolina,” he adds. “Probably 90 percent of it stays in Henderson County.”
Ward says the trips to Normandy, the importing of French apple trees from stock that dates back hundreds of years and the care in growing, aging and distilling is all part of a mission to produce “something that’s of value and merit, because people that buy brandy, they’re going to pay between $35 and $50 a bottle. This is taking an apple product that takes three years to age. A lot of people want to just get it out there. You can’t do that.”
He hopes that the quality of brandy and hard cider will attract tasters from near and far, and he expects to add online sales, too.
“We don’t want to come out with something that people buy just because it’s local,” he says. “We want people to buy the things we produce because they’re excellent, not because they’re just OK.”